The Man from Fortune Bay

KEVIN LEECY KNOWS something about deals gone bad. Since 2004, he’s been tribal chairman of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, whose reservation on the border of Minnesota’s Arrowhead region was so chopped up by government take-backs and lumberjacks and gold prospectors that it emerged from the 19th century in far-flung pieces, like a deer ravaged by wolves. After the tribe was pressured to sign a treaty ceding lands to the U.S. government in the 1850s, band members had to regularly hike some 200 miles to Grand Portage to collect the payments and provisions that, by all accounts, were hardly worth the trek. In the 20th century, Indian children literally had their heritage beaten out of them in government-mandated boarding schools, where they were punished if they spoke or dressed like Indians. Bois Forte was so neglected that even until a few years ago, the state highway running through the reservation was paved right up to the border, turned to gravel inside the rez, and went back to pavement on the other side—the last gravel highway in Minnesota.

Leecy pretty much thought he’d heard it all when he got wind of Governor Tim Pawlenty’s state-tribal casino plan last year. Pawlenty had long been trying to get the state a cut of the billion-dollar casino revenues generated by tribes. It wouldn’t be easy—gaming compacts signed in the 1980s can be renegotiated only if both sides agree to do so. Past legislative efforts to squeeze payments from tribes or legalize competing non-Indian gaming have mostly failed. Tapping the only economic development tool that’s made any difference in conditions on Indian reservations wouldn’t exactly be politically correct. Nevertheless, with a budget crunch looming, Pawlenty was hoping to finally hit the jackpot.

The governor’s plan was for Indian bands to ante up $200 million to participate in a new casino located near the metro area, with the state receiving one-third of the revenues. Pawlenty reached out specifically to bands like Bois Forte, whose relatively isolated casinos generate only a fraction of the money pulled in by bands closer to the Twin Cities. But there was a catch, as far as Leecy was concerned: the plan would open the door to off-reservation casinos (busting the de-facto Indian monopoly) while competing with Mystic Lake and other metro-area casinos, pitting Indian against Indian. Pawlenty called his plan “a more fair deal.” Right, Leecy thought. Fair like Columbus.

Leecy immediately spoke out. In a press release, he said the proposed deal did not pass the “smell test.” In his 2005 State of the Band address, Leecy noted, “Whether it was our timber, wild rice, or our land, Indian people have had a bad experience in these types of deals.” He even testified before Congress: “As we know from experience, the end result will be simply another example of tribes being separated from their resources.”

Although three tribes—the Red Lake, Leech Lake, and White Earth bands, which together make up nearly 80 percent of Minnesota’s native population—were tentatively behind the proposal, Leecy couldn’t be swayed. “It is a sad day in Indian country when our fellow tribes seek action that is intended to divide us,” he said.

Suddenly, the 40-year-old former public relations official for Bois Forte’s Fortune Bay Resort Casino was making headlines for a band few people outside the Arrowhead region had ever heard of. A year later, Leecy was elected vice chair of the National Indian Gaming Association, which represents 184 indigenous nations across America, and was hailed by the lobbying group’s leader as “a great example of the new generation of bright, articulate, young Indian leaders.” If Pawlenty presumed Leecy would eagerly sign on to his casino deal—which eventually died in the Legislature—he was sorely mistaken. So how could Bois Forte, with 29 percent of its population living under the poverty line and a casino closer to the Canadian wilderness than the megabucks of Minneapolis, afford to turn down the state’s offer? Leecy and the band had something better in mind.

IN THE BEGINNING, there was Gitchie Manitou, the Great Spirit. And after creating the woods and the waters and everything in them, he made the Anishinabe—the “original people”—who lived on the East Coast of North America and spoke an Algonquin tongue. It is from this tribe that the Bois Forte band was formed. Many hundreds of years ago, before Columbus arrived, the Anishinabe were told in a dream to move inland or risk being destroyed by newcomers from the east. Those who voyaged up the St. Lawrence River on a 500-year migration became known as the Chippewa—or Ojibwe, as they prefer to be called. They stopped when they found the turtle-shaped island foretold in the dream—Madeline Island in Lake Superior—and manoomin, or wild rice, the “food that grows on water.” From there, they dispersed, until the newcomers from the East—the French, at first—caught up to them anyway.

Bois Forte means “people of the thick woods” or “people of the hard woods” or “hardy people of the woods”—the French intention is unclear, though the import is obvious enough: these were some tough Indians who could thrive in the fir forests around what is now Voyageurs National Park. The band arrived in the area after moving north from the Iron Range. A group of warriors had tracked a wounded moose for several days to a lake filled with wild rice; when the Indians said they saw a spirit rise from the lake—a man in clothing that resembled a net—they knew this was where they should live. Today, the lake (as well as the village where the Bois Forte tribal government is based) is called Nett Lake, and it is believed to contain the largest chain of natural wild rice beds in the world. When, in 1854, the U.S. government forced the Bois Forte band to choose a reservation, this is where they settled.

Some 675 Bois Forte band members now live on the reservation, mostly in Nett Lake. The village of Vermilion, the reservation’s other major settlement, sits on the shore of the state’s fifth-largest lake, ringed with resorts. Vermilion has a smaller population than Nett Lake but contains the band’s Fortune Bay Resort Casino—easily the largest employer in the area—and its popular golf course, the Wilderness at Fortune Bay, which was named “America’s best new upscale public course” last year by Golf Digest. The villages are an hour’s drive apart, through woods that give you some idea of what the French were talking about: the underbrush forms a thorny wall between the trees and in spring the mayflies swarm out of the swamps, pelting windshields like a heavy rain.

The village of Nett Lake, located 40 miles from Canada, is laid out in a circle with a few interlacing roads fanning out from the middle, like a dreamcatcher, with modest houses and trailer homes scattered on the outskirts. In the center sit the offices of the Reservation Tribal Council (RTC), the Nett Lake School, the Native Hearts Fitness Center, and a home for seniors (called elders here) affectionately dubbed the Wrinkle Ranch. The K–6 school is the pride of the reservation; murals of native life cover the walls, and students learn about traditional Ojibwe culture. Recently, the school was awarded $10.7 million from the state Legislature for an expansion that will attach a health clinic to the school building, an effort to encourage positive lifestyles in a culture where it’s not uncommon for people to die in their forties from the effects of poor diet, smoking, and alcoholism. Before Bois Forte gaming began with a bingo parlor in 1986, the village more closely resembled a Third World country, with shack-like homes, outhouses for bathrooms, and very little employment—“a place you didn’t want to direct people to,” according to Tom Klein, a long-time editor of the Daily Journal in International Falls who now is news editor for the Timberjay newspaper in Cook. However, in the past 10 years or so, a miracle worthy of Gitchie Manitou has transformed the reservation.

In an economically challenged part of the state that’s used to people moving out, not in, band members are flocking to the reservation. There’s a waiting list for housing; in fact, one transplant, a dentist, lived with his family in the Fortune Bay hotel for a year until their house could be built. This would be easier to believe if Bois Forte distributed casino profits to individual band members, a practice that’s enriched members of the band behind Mystic Lake (a band, frankly, that can afford to do this and still donate millions to other tribes). But Bois Forte doesn’t give per-capita payments. Instead, the band has poured money into infrastructure: clinics, housing, education, and enterprise (last year, the band purchased WELY, a radio station in Ely as famed for its previous owner—CBS broadcaster Charles Kuralt—as its quirky programming) in order to diversify its economy, 31 percent of which is now driven by non-casino revenues. “They’re doing it right, in my opinion,” says Bill Hanna, editor of the Mesabi Daily News, based in Virginia. Klein agrees: “They’re investing in a lot of things you’d like to see state government investing in.”

But band members aren’t just moving back for the jobs, or the full college-tuition reimbursement, or the laptops the band hopes to give to every fifth- and sixth-grader. They’re returning for their health. Many were raised in Twin Cities neighborhoods infested with drugs and crime. On the rez, in the strong woods, band members feel safer and breathe easier and take comfort in their Ojibwe culture. “It’s a good place to raise a family” is not something one hears about a reservation very often, but it’s said all the time at Bois Forte.

Kevin Leecy is a transplant himself. His grandmother was born in a native village in what is now Voyageurs National Park. He grew up in Little Earth, the Indian housing complex in south Minneapolis. After joining the Army, going to college, and working in Leech Lake’s casino, he arrived at Bois Forte in 1996 and soon became the public- relations director for Fortune Bay. Indians speak of “walking in two worlds”—their own society and that of the dominant culture—and, as someone who has lived both in the big city and on the reservation, Leecy understands this dynamic better than most. But another advantage is what he doesn’t know: his generation is the first to have no personal experience with the government-run boarding schools. He grew up with Red Power, the cultural and political movement that began in the late 1960s as Indians reclaimed their heritage, and he has ascended as Indian casinos—which raked in some $20 billion nationally last year—are flourishing. His generation of leaders may be judged on how they cultivate the fruit of both eras, using today’s financial windfalls to keep the old ways alive—while ensuring that all this progress doesn’t crash when the Indian casino monopoly does.

If anyone is in a position to balance these priorities, it might be Leecy. He may not be the most powerful Indian leader in the state, his band being neither the richest nor the largest. But he is likely the best-connected, having never really taken off his public-relations hat. He helped found the Minnesota American Indian Tourism Association, now a division of the Minnesota American Indian Chamber of Commerce. He’s chair of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, the official liaison between the state’s 11 tribes and government. His national reputation, boosted by the stand against Pawlenty and calls for coalition-building, is formidable enough to have won him the position of vice-chair of the National Indian Gaming Association. That said, his mission is more than financial or even cultural. In the end, it is spiritual. Many Indians believe that when their spirituality is healthy, they too will prosper. And Leecy wants very much to see that the dark days of even a few decades ago never return. This is why he was so proud this past summer when the Vermilion Family Wellness Center, with a fitness center, computer facilities, and a Boys & Girls Club, opened right across the road from the ruins of Bois Forte’s old boarding school.

“Life is a circle,” he says. “We were down and now we’re coming up.”

“NO ONE UNDERSTANDS the reservation,” says a woman who’s worked on and off it for years, meaning that for many non-Indians, contemporary tribal life is a mystery as impenetrable as the Bois Forte woods. In fact, it may be impossible for outsiders to untangle the threads that pull this place along (and sometimes hold it back): a mix of family loyalties, ancient traditions, and modern realities. A good place to start learning is at a powwow, which, at Bois Forte, is like a family reunion with better food, dancing, and door prizes.

Hand-painted signs mark the way to the Sah gii bah gah (“Moon of the Bursting Buds”) powwow, a celebration of spring held beside Nett Lake. The grounds consist of a circle of bleachers surrounding a grass ring for dancing, with a gazebo in the middle sheltering several drumming groups. All day and night, the groups take turns playing; anyone who wants to dance can do so.

A silver-haired man in traditional finery—headdress, buckskin, bells—dances beside a girl of about 12 wearing a T-shirt that says “You’re cute enough for tonight.” Dozens of women and girls wear jingle dresses, also called healing dresses, a traditional outfit adorned with tiny metal cones (the lids of Copenhagen snuff cans are the preferred do-it-yourself material). The jingles clink against each other with the slightest shake so that a constant ringing emanates from the powwow grounds, like the sound of sleigh bells or the murmur of prayer.

Booths selling dreamcatchers and Indian tacos—ground beef, lettuce, and tomatoes stuffed into frybread—stand beside a vintage camper trailer marked “Egg Rolls.” A sacred campfire, kept alight throughout the powwow, burns beside a Mary Kay cosmetics outpost.

a photograph of the Bois Forte's land
Photo By Thomas Strand

“We come to share our culture—our way is all about sharing,” announces a spiritual leader visiting from Grand Portage. “We’re not trying to change anyone’s way—the elders teach us to respect other people. …We come here for guidance and the wisdom of our elderly people. For healing. And we come here for a good time.” The emcee speaks in the flat, matter-of-fact manner sometimes called “Indian brogue,” memorably employed by several characters in the old TV series Northern Exposure. The dialect has often led outsiders to believe Indians are stoic or even humorless, but generally the opposite is true. For instance, Kevin Leecy and his wife have six children, five girls and a boy, the youngest; Leecy jokingly calls him “Finally.”

A survivalist spirit is woven into the culture. Mary Strong, a diminutive grandmother, grew up with a spartan, traditional lifestyle, eating lake weeds and scouring the forest for food and medicinal plants. She operated heavy machinery in the Iron Range mines and drove a truck for the state highway department for 21 years. “People think we get everything for free,” she says. (The idea that Indians don’t pay taxes is as false as it is widely believed. For the record, all Indians are subject to federal taxes, and all Indians are subject to state taxes unless they both live and work on a reservation.) Strong admires Kevin Leecy for standing up to Pawlenty and for encouraging traditional culture. She still hand-harvests wild rice and, during breaks in the powwow dancing, sells it out of the back of her minivan.

Of course, it will take more than dancing and ricing to address some of the entrenched issues on reservations. Bois Forte’s unemployment rate hovers around 30 percent. Rez politics, complicated by small-town gossip and family feuds in which certain families are perceived as getting the better government jobs, are brutally divisive (Leecy has already survived, rather easily, one petition to oust him). And, perhaps most importantly, not all the wounds of colonialism have healed. “Have you heard of historical trauma?” asks a Bois Forte man at the powwow. The terms refers to the cumulative psychological damage inflicted by the boarding schools and other tools of assimilation, the hole where a culture was. “A lot of people want to paint a rosy picture of the reservation,” he says. “But it’s not.”

“We’re trying to change that mistrust [of outsiders] instilled in our parents and grandparents,” says a man about Leecy’s age. “We’re still fighting it.”

IN VERMILION, near Fortune Bay, the Bois Forte Heritage Center & Cultural Museum sits a short distance from a gouge in the earth made by gold prospectors, who invaded Indian lands to seek their own fortunes in 1866. The museum describes the gold rush and many other events in Bois Forte history while communicating the traditions of Ojibwe life to golfers, gamblers, schoolchildren, and other visitors. And there are a lot of them: last year, band officials say, Fortune Bay turned away 10,000 potential guests who couldn’t be accommodated at the resort, which is now being expanded to 175 rooms. Non-Indians (“chimooks,” to use the local slang for white folks) are more integrated in rez life now, making up the vast majority of resort employees, and it’s Leecy’s hope that tourism will spawn a new kind of interaction between Indians and the wider world, one that leads to cultural understanding, not culture clashes. To confront the past as a modern-day Indian leader, he explains, “I think you have to say, ‘Don’t feel sorry for me’ [as well as] ‘What can I do today to make sure that doesn’t happen to us again?’”

Casino money has raised the profile of Indian tribes in general. Banks that once refused to loan money to bands now court their business. Politicians who ignored the native vote now seek its blessing. But Leecy believes the Indian casino stronghold will inevitably be breached—someone will succeed where Pawlenty failed. He just hopes that a new model for Indian reservations will be in place by then. One with a more diverse economy. One that welcomes business and visitors. One, in other words, that resembles the rest of society. But also a model that emphasizes why the rez must always be different; without an appreciation for Indian sovereignty—the right of Indian tribes to govern themselves and deal with the U.S. government much like a state or even a foreign nation—there can be no understanding of Indians, just as there would be no casinos. Sovereignty, properly respected, Leecy believes, may be the best way to ensure that the past isn’t repeated. And now that tribes are being listened to more closely, it may be the best time in a long while to get that message across.

Recently, as chair of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, Leecy insisted on meeting directly with legislators or the governor instead of lower officials. “It’s like a muscle,” Leecy says. “If you don’t flex that sovereignty—and we haven’t as much in the past—then you lose it.”

Leecy’s approach seems to fit with the recently articulated doctrine of “responsible sovereignty,” which, according to David Wilkins, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, advises Indian leaders to strike a pragmatic balance between upholding Indian integrity and the knowledge that inherent sovereignty can be “snuffed out” at the whim of government officials. If Leecy is unafraid of conflict, it’s only because he’s confident he can find practical solutions. “There are certain people who need to step up at these higher levels and say something—and I’m willing to do that,” he says. “Someone needs to come in and help mediate and educate.”

Leecy has less than two years left as Bois Forte chairman before he must fight for re-election, but even a 20-year tenure probably wouldn’t be enough to address some of the band’s larger issues. “It took us a long time—200, 300 years—to lose the life that was given us,” says Gene Goodsky, one of Bois Forte’s spiritual advisors, implying it may also take the Indians a long time to get it all back. After all, one of the lessons lost, he says, was likely the most important: patience.

In the cultural museum stands a large photographic collage, representing all the families living at Bois Forte. Many of the pictures are black and white, grainy, signifying a history that stretches far back in time. Nearby, a sign in Ojibwe says “Geyabi oma endayamin.” In English, it means “We’re still here.” MM

Tim Gihring is senior writer for Minnesota Monthly.